Mark Mullen on the Future of Misha

Interview

Mikheil Saakashvili’s future is still unclear – for all his pledges that he will return to Ukraine and fight for his citizenship, that it’s not over and the show has just begun, or whether he’ll just stick with that rather reassuring one-year working US visa, the divisive ex-President of Georgia’s prospects are very much up in the air. After news broke of his being denied Ukrainian citizenship, those prospects rapidly became one of the top subjects to ponder for Post-Soviet space experts everywhere. Mark Mullen, long-time observer of Georgia and a man once considered “Misha’s Dzmakaci,” perhaps knows more than most. GEORGIA TODAY and Panorama TV Show caught up with the former Transparency International guru to ask him what he thought of Saakashvili’s future prospects and political career. Not much, it turned out.

How would you, as his friend, assess Saakashvili’s political career post-Georgia?

When it comes to Saakashvili, I think his most important legacy was not political. It was putting together the group that got rid of petty corruption in Georgia. But as years passed, he increasingly refused to listen to people who had opposing ideas. He isolated himself, so losing the elections in 2012. From 2013, his role in Georgian politics wasn’t a positive one and I don’t think he has much of a role in Georgia personally anymore. The main thing he’s done [recently] is to prevent the UNM from being as influential as they could have been as an opposition party. He and the people in the country had very different ideas about how it should be run. He tends to be aggressive, whereas most of the leadership of the UNM in Georgia is a little bit more conciliatory. So, his involvement from outside has been generally of the negative kind for the Georgian opposition.

A man once proclaimed a hero and harbinger of democracy now finds himself without citizenship. How?

Truth be told, I never heard anybody saying that Saakashvili was the harbinger of democracy. Democracy was not his greatest strength. What he did was get rid of corruption and then he tried to take that message to another country. Ukraine and Georgia are very close countries, having a long history of mutual respect and cooperation. But it’s a different country and the reality of it is that the Ukraine leadership was not ready for his aggressive style of operation. Although he had some very good ideas in Odessa, most of his anti-corruption efforts were sabotaged. At the same time, he was personally aggressive to everybody that he needed to work with. And keep in mind it’s not his homeland. Eventually, they got tired of him. Poroshenko said he would not extradite him because he would immediately be thrown in jail and I don’t think Saakashvili would get a fair trial in Georgia. But they did make him stateless, so now he’s in a sort of limbo, in exile in the US.

What do you think the West will do? Will they shelter Saakashvili? Will there be repercussions for Ukraine?

I doubt there’ll be repercussions for Ukraine. I think that at this point the West understands Saakashvili quite well; his strengths and weaknesses. What happens to Saakashvili next is a complicated question. My guess is that the US will allow him to stay there. I don’t know whether he’ll be offered citizenship anywhere else. I don’t think he’ll be given American citizenship. He might claim asylum, though…

He said he won’t seek asylum and he’ll fight to return to Ukraine. A Lithuanian MEP expressed readiness on behalf of his country to grant him citizenship or shelter there

That might very well happen. Lithuania is the kind of place that would be OK about giving him a base of operations in Europe. Certainly, there are many in Europe who respect him and care about him and would like him to see him there. The question at this point is what his relevance in European politics is. The Ukrainian government doesn’t want him, the Georgian government doesn’t want him. The question is, who is he talking to? He’s not much of an analyst: he’s a person who acts. But the places where he can make a difference don’t want him.

Do you think he’ll ever come back to Georgia and, if he does, in what capacity – as a convict or as a political force?

A lot of that depends on Georgian Dream (GD). The reality of it is that GD’s leadership hates Saakashvili and will convict him in any way they can. On the other hand, Saakashvili has committed crimes that he could be imprisoned for. I don’t think he’d come back to Georgia to go to jail. If the GD government allows Georgia to remain as democratic as it is right now, if they allow themselves to be elected out of office at some point in the future, then things could happen. Frankly, it’s unlikely that Saakashvili will have any political future [here]. If GD becomes unpopular at some point in the future, in 5 or 10 years, it is theoretically possible that people might think that Saakashvili is the only one that could take their power. But I’d be very surprised if that happens at all. Saakashvili is not a patient guy. I don’t think that he’s really thinking about that time frame. If he were, he’d be behaving in a very different way right now.

So, is it game over for Saakashvili’s political career?

Saakashvili has never really reckoned with the truth of what happened to his presidency in Georgia. He’s never apologized and he’s never really recognized the many bad things that happened while he was in power. Until he does, I doubt that people in Georgia or abroad are very interested in what he has to say. Some of his commentary about Ukraine is interesting but he was totally ineffective there and I don’t think people believe him regarding Georgia. A politician needs to have an arena and Saakashvili just doesn’t have one.

Vazha Tavberidze

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